Steering Biotech Through Difficult Waters

Currently vice president of business development at Axaron Bioscience AG, Heidelberg, Alrik Koppenhöfer (pictured at left) has moved fast in a very dynamic field to establish himself in senior management just 4 years after completing his PhD. But it hasn't all been plain sailing.

Koppenhöfer studied chemistry in his native Germany, obtaining his degree from the University of Freiburg. For his final year thesis, he studied crystal structures of zinc drug complexes and serendipitously produced the first example of a new kind of crystal, giving him a taste of the excitement of scientific discovery.

Earlier studies abroad--he graduated from a US high school and participated as an undergraduate in an ERASMUS exchange programme between the Universities of Freiburg and Sussex--had whetted his appetite for living abroad. In particular, he says, "the way in which Professor Robert Bray and his team at Sussex University introduced me to the world of laboratory research in enzymology encouraged me to return to the UK" for a PhD in biochemistry. Choosing among several opportunities, he opted to do his graduate studies at Oxford with Stuart Ferguson, studying cytochrome-type enzymes.

During this time, he developed a knack for organisation and fundraising, obtaining funding for his research from 10 different institutions. While his basic requirements were met by a Marie Curie fellowship (from the European Commission), the additional funds enabled him to initiate collaborations with research groups at three other universities, including two in Japan. Meanwhile, he started a successful series of "industry days" for the Oxford University Biochemical Society ( OUBS), at which speakers from life sciences companies introduced the student audience to the world of commercially applied science.

He also got a firsthand taste of the challenges involved in setting up a small business when his wife, fellow chemist Helen Beattie, established a free-lance translating and editing business, OxfordSciText, from their home. In particular, he says, "starting a new business forced Helen and me to think about product positioning, marketing, pricing, and selling a service business via new distribution channels." They also learned to appreciate the specific advantages of business via the Internet, as "Japanese and U.S. West Coast customers benefited from Helen's overnight editorial services."

After finishing his PhD, Koppenhöfer joined Oxford spin-out company International Biomedical and Health Sciences Consortium (IBHSC) as a scientific project manager. This move fulfilled his long-held ambition of working in the health care market. Initially, he had considered training as a medical doctor, but he became more interested in the role that science plays in drug discovery. Moreover, he says, "in the mid-'90s, the visions and successes of the founders of the young British biotech industry very much encouraged me to enter a start-up business in the healthcare field. The OUBS [Oxford University Biochemical Society] industry days were an excellent forum to feel the spirit and excitement of spin-out companies." His roles at IBHSC involved consulting for a leading life sciences company and taking part in the development and co-ordination of a global master plan for drugs against HIV/AIDS. He had to negotiate new partnerships with health care experts and executives, ensuring that the customer's business needs were being addressed.

In this position, his general scientific background was useful, as he needed a broad understanding of science and how it can be translated effectively into business. Of the specific skills developed during his studies, he considers the analytical and project management skills to be most important for such work. The latter, he says, also depend on "effective communications skills, which I developed by having lived and worked in several countries."

However, IBHSC's business was based on a single large contract. When this client terminated the agreement, Koppenhöfer was made redundant. Trying his hand at free-lance health care consultancy via the Internet, Koppenhöfer soon realised that the growth of the Internet economy was unsustainable and that free-lance work would not provide him with the career he was looking for.

So in April 2000, Koppenhöfer joined the fast-growing bioinformatics company LION bioscience AG in Heidelberg as a product manager for third-party products. In this role, he was responsible for the in-licensing of software and databases from other companies and institutions. In order to offer complete software solutions to their clients (including pharmaceutical, food, and agrochemical companies), LION had to keep an eye on what software products were available from other companies and institutions. These other organisations included academic and research institutes such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg and the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge.

The key advantage that helped him secure this position may have been his "exposure to Anglo-American culture and [the] health care sector," along with his bilingualism, he thinks. Although there was no formal training in the new skills he needed, he developed legal knowledge by working closely with LION's legal and patent departments, and he also took part in a 2-day workshop on "solution selling," learning valuable negotiation skills.

These were put to good use as, in less than 2 years, Koppenhöfer negotiated more than 20 contracts that allowed LION to build a diverse product portfolio. Typically, these contracts would cover specific pieces of software for the analysis of biological data (e.g., the human genome) or databases, which then were adopted and integrated into LION's software packages. At the same time, Koppenhöfer, as product manager, initiated and supervised LION's e-learning product aimed at life scientists wanting to acquire knowledge in bioinformatics.

However, there were other fields left to explore. "With the knowledge of how to in-license and negotiate deals," says Koppenhöfer, "I became increasingly more interested in providing sophisticated software solutions to customers." Therefore, in January 2002 he applied for and was promoted to the position of business development manager for Europe within the company. In this role, he initiated and completed a deal with Derwent Information/Thomson Scientific, a leading provider of patent information for scientific applications. LION created a new portal allowing researchers to access the patent databases held by Derwent in a sequence-based manner.

He also managed the collaboration among LION, the publishers Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, and three German universities to convert the famous wall chart showing hundreds of biochemical pathways (known as the "Boehringer chart" to biochemists, as it was for many years sponsored and distributed by this company) into a fully interactive electronic database, for which LION developed an exclusive interface.

But during 2002, he already sensed that LION's rapid rise was slowing and that economic problems lay ahead for the company. Against this background, he realised that the development of a smaller company, Axaron, might be more inspiring. Heidelberg-based Axaron Bioscience AG was originally founded in 1997 as a joint venture between German chemistry giant BASF and Californian biotech company Lynx Therapeutics as BASF-LYNX Bioscience AG. In November 2001, the partners gave the venture a new name, an extra cash injection, and more independence in pursuing its goal of becoming a leading functional genomics company.

In October 2002, after a neatly timed 2-month break to accommodate the birth of his second child, Koppenhöfer took up his current position as vice president of business development at Axaron. As a member of the four-strong management team, he is helping to steer a 70-employee company through difficult economic times. Specifically, he is responsible for the business development of Axaron's drug discovery program in neuroscience, including several platform technologies and drug candidates targeted at the central nervous system.

Half a year into the new job, he describes business development in biotech as "fun, because it brings you together with people of very diverse educational and cultural backgrounds from all over the world." This is a very modern phenomenon, typical of our times, because, Koppenhöfer adds, "biotechnology would be unthinkable without the modern ways of communication and travelling on a global scale. One has to be open-minded and understanding of everyone's needs."

So he remains enthusiastic, even though times are difficult for biotech in Germany. "The current situation, where venture capitalists are no longer investing in biotech start-ups, the government refuses to step in, and inexperienced managers fail to produce sustainable business models, could cost thousands of scientists their jobs within the German biotech industry," he fears. Hoping to navigate his own career and the fortunes of his company past these difficulties, Koppenhöfer wants to "build a sustainable, customer-focused business on an international level." Increasingly, he has developed an interest in the psychology behind business negotiations. Understanding what makes people in the field tick sounds to him like a useful survival skill.

Michael Gross is a science writer in residence at the school of crystallography, Birkbeck College, University of London. He can be contacted via his Web page at

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